Had you been looking for a good party 9,000 years ago, Jiahu village near China’s Yellow River would have been the place. It had music: During the 1980s, archaeologists turned up the earliest known instruments there, six bone flutes. Other artifacts recently studied from that dig unmask the first example in history of another essential party ingredient: booze.
Chemical analysis of 16 broken jars shows they once contained a beverage made of fermented rice, honey, and either grapes or hawthorn fruit—a mix of beer, wine, and mead rolled into one. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who analyzed the artifacts using chromatography and spectrometry, believes the drink did more than intoxicate Neolithic Chinese. The alcohol may have kept them healthy by killing microbes in their digestive tract.
The earliest alcohol likely predates Jiahu village. Early hominids could have learned about alcohol by watching monkeys piling fruit and flowers in rock crevices so they could slurp up the fermented juice dripping out of the rotting pile. McGovern says the precise origin of fermented drink may always be a mystery. “Wherever humans have access to high-sugar resources—honey, fruit, grains—they start trying to make fermented beverages,” he says. “There may have been many independent discoveries of fermentation.”